There are many once obscure but now almost commonplace grape varietals, but few have the staying power, and even the claim to greatness, of albariño. A few short years ago, it was rare to encounter this Galician white outside Spanish restaurants or a few wine bars addressed to enthusiasts. Nowadays, while it may not be ubiquitous, you often see it around.

Albariño is so naturally, easily good that almost any bottle you see is worth drinking. However, there’s a hidden majesty in the grape, too, a shimmer, structure and complexity in the better expressions that take you by surprise. I love these eruptions of greatness, though it’s the reliable goodness albariño expresses so effortlessly that I may love even more.

Galicia, the home to albariño, is in Spain’s northwest. Most good albariño is from the Rías Baixas DO (and within that, the Salnes subregion), which nuzzles the Atlantic just above the Miño river separating Spain from the region of Vinho Verde, Portugal. In Portugal, that river is known as the Minho, and the grape that dominates the best Vinho Verde wines is alvarinho. Interesting albariño/alvarinho also is being produced in California and Australia.

As much as I like good whites from Vinho Verde, albariño from Rías Baixas displays significantly more amplitude and dimension than most dagger-like Portuguese expressions. The brightness, crisp definition, ripe fruit flavors and underlying salty mineral basis of the wines have for a while reminded me of dry riesling, but it was only recently that I learned these two grapes may be connected.

Albariño actually means “white of the Rhine,” and many in Galicia claim that the grape is a clone of riesling brought from Alsace to Spain in the 12th century. Since no records of riesling exist anywhere before the 15th century, however, the riesling/albariño connection must remain, for now, a rumor.

In the mouth, though, a link. With albariño as with riesling, lime and salt, a steeliness and overall precision prevail. Sometimes a looser category of rich fruit flavors emerge – peaches, pears; sometimes there’s also a floral exoticism, though always dry, subtle, background, restrained.

The primary breakdown in this ampelographic analogy occurs in the respective weight of the wines. While a dry riesling is usually crystalline and light in body even if its flavors drive deep, albariño feels substantially fuller in the mouth, sacrificing a bit of delicacy for a more enveloping embrace. In this way, the grape resembles pinot grigio, though most albariño is way more interesting and delicious than most pinot grigio.

As always with wine grapes, the climate and soil account for albariño’s success. A relatively lush region of Spain, Rías Baixas is a vigorous green landscape, which in the best vineyards lies atop quick-draining granitic soils. The cooling effects of both the Miño and the Atlantic allow grapes to ripen slowly and well.

A long ripening process leads to balanced flavor in the finished wine and helps offset the distinctive trait of albariño that is riskiest to discuss: its bitterness. Bitterness is a dangerous word, since its negative connotations might scare off potential fans. But bitter is a primary sensation, and necessary to flesh out a complete taste experience that also includes sweet, sour, salty and umami. If you like skin-on nuts, herbs and greens, coffee, saffron, tahini, peppered steak, clams and mussels, aged cheeses, you like bitter.

Albariño’s distinctive bitter aspect arises from the fact that its skin is naturally thick and each grape contains many pits. Most of the best albariño wines spend time macerating with their skins before fermentation begins, to extract deeper flavor compounds from the grapes’ phenolic components (skin and seed); the bitterness comes along for that ride. Do not fear this element of good albariño; just notice it and appreciate how it contributes to the overall pleasure the wines offer.

There’s one famous name in albariño: Martín Códax, a cooperative that produces in great quantities (and tastes just dandy). Most other wineries operate on a very small scale (often selling to co-ops), and come from a history of mixed farming: “vineyards” were just plots where a lot of other produce grew alongside grapes. This is part of the reason that traditionally albariño vines grow in “pergola” style: led toward trellises several feet above the ground, often trained on granite posts. With this method, vegetables could be planted in the same spots as the vines. But it also aids ventilation of the grape clusters, all-important in an area that sees significant rainfall and Atlantic mist.

Several Gallego vintners are experimenting with vinification techniques of albariño, including the use of oak for fermentation and aging. The intention seems to be to show that the grape can produce wines capable of gaining complexity through many years of aging. I don’t doubt it, though the two wines mentioned below are fermented in stainless steel and intended to be consumed young.

But while these experiments are exciting, we ought not automatically trust the intentions of either the vintners or the native consumers. The wine culture of Austria, for example, is famous for drinking almost all of its extraordinary rieslings and grüner veltliners within two years of their release, even though all but the cheapest ones really hit their stride after five to seven years.

The stainless-fermented albariño wines I’ve drunk cannot run that marathon, but they can take on impressive secondary traits at the three- or four-year mark. The intense mineral aspect ensures it. So take your time with these wines. Employ the usual tactics: open and decant even the inexpensive bottles an hour or more before serving; chill them, but not too much. And stick a bottle in the basement for a couple of years, too.

When it’s time to serve, albariño is food wine, straight up. They’re perfectly fine to sip on their own, but without some sort of meal you’ll get 40 percent of what’s on offer, max. While your first few albariño-based meals should include something that swims, floats or huddles under an ocean rock, move on at some point. Crab with albariño is incredible. Same for shrimp, squid, fried baitfish. But moderately spicy sausages are an amazing match, too, especially with lemony greens alongside. Salty ham. Garlic, olives, salt, capers ought to be in the mix somehow. Or not: sushi and tempura are surprising wins as well.

Burgans Albariño 2013 ($14) is a beautiful baseline. It is a custom-blended project from the Martín Códax co-op, with all Salnes Valley fruit grown in sandy and granitic soils. Succulently salty, with hints of dried apricot and almond skin as well as the trademark bitter tang, it just kind of has you at hello. You can’t resist.

It ought to be served well-chilled in Dixie cups at every clam shack in Maine. Once opened and warmed for a while, it shows a surprising richness and a somewhat slick texture, like extra-virgin olive oil.

The Burgans is an exemplary interesting white wine for a reasonable price, and a terrific argument for the power of well-managed co-ops to make wines of distinction available to a broad audience.

The Arcan Albariño 2011 and 2013 ($19) are more, more, more. The current-vintage 2013 is explosively energetic, but a few bottles of the settled 2011 are kicking around these parts and are worth seeking out. Again, the grapes are from Salnes, grown on vines ranging from 35 to 100 years old (the Burgans vines average 20) on granitic soils with some clay. These are manually harvested by a family of mussel farmers, and glory hallelujah, please do steam some of those bivalves with garlic, butter and sliced almonds, alongside a bottle of the Arcan, especially if you have the older vintage.

The 2011 is almost buttery on its finish, still propulsively mineral, a shower of shells and stones, with a slight aspect of oxidation indicating that this 4-year-old wine is reaching the end of its line. The combination of freshness and “old attic” character is a golden moment to catch. Then you can move over to the 2013 for even more lithic power and pronounced apricot juiciness, a vigorous yet maturing wine on the rise.

Joe Appel is the wine buyer at Rosemont Market. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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